South Yemen and North Yemen are unified as the Republic of Yemen

South Yemen and North Yemen are unified as the Republic of Yemen


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After 150 years apart, Marxist South Yemen and conservative North Yemen are unified as the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdullah, president of North Yemen, became the new country’s president, and Ali Salem Al-Baidh, leader of the South Yemeni Socialist Party, vice president. The first free elections were held in 1993.

Situated at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen was divided between the British and the Ottomans in the mid-19th century. The Turks were expelled from the north in 1918, but the British continued to dominate the south until 1967, when the Arab world’s first and only Marxist state, the People’s Republic of South Yemen, was established.

The unification of Yemen in 1990 did not go as smoothly as hoped; economic troubles in 1991 brought Yemen to the brink of collapse, and a civil war in 1994 between southern secessionists and Yemen’s northern-based government temporarily dissolved the Yemeni union. Free elections resumed in 1997.


Is South Yemen Preparing to Declare Independence?

Anti-government protesters in Aden, Yemen, call for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, April 26, 2011.

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Yemen's flag of three horizontal bars of red, white and black is a recognizable symbol throughout most of the country, flown by anti-government protesters and regime supporters alike. But in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, hardly a single Yemeni flag is flown without the triangular, sky-blue badge and red star of the socialist party hastily spray-painted on its left side, recreating the banner of the now defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, which once ruled a region that makes up roughly two-thirds of Yemen.

The military personnel loyal to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are distinctly absent in Aden. Unlike Yemen's capital where anti-government banners and signs are found only near Sana'a University, the port city is emblazoned with anti-government graffiti on walls, shops and even across the high security walls of now empty government buildings. Slogans like "Get out Ali, you dog. Long live the South" can be read up and down the Mu'alla district of the city where anti-regime protesters have blocked off the entire road, one of Aden's largest and busiest. While some of South Yemen's protesters support unity under a new government, most demand a free and independent state. Broken up bricks and shattered concrete slabs litter the street as children play soccer among the ruins, the evidence of fighting between protesters and military that took place as recently as last month. (Photos: See the hand art of Yemen's protesters.)

But Saleh's army is now a rare sight, if not altogether invisible, and covert foes have emerged to fill the vacuum. Once operating out of the shadows of the ancient volcano towering over Aden, South Yemen's Southern Movement, known as the "Harak", has exploded from its hiding places to stand proudly and defiantly against the ailing President (who continues to recuperate in Saudi Arabia from wounds suffered from an assault on his palace) and his northern regime, demanding a return of sovereignty to the area. "If the Harak declared independence, would soldiers obey orders to travel to the south and enforce unity? No. The soldiers that haven't been shipped off by Sana'a to fight the tribes wouldn't go up against the entire south," says Mohsen M. Bin Farid, Secretary General of the RAY party, South Yemen's first independent political organization. Indeed, the regime's military is not only engaging rebel tribesmen in the north and Islamist militants in the south but is divided into factions facing off against each other in the capital, players in the dangerous game of succession unfolding in Sana'a.


Yemen: A Brief Background

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen. Even before the current war, this desert nation on the edge of the Arabian peninsula, home to 28 million people, was already the poorest country in the Arab world. It wasn’t always that way, but Yemen’s complex history can help us understand the current conflict. Here’s a brief timeline showing how events and pressures have combined to devastating effect.

Early History

Yemen has played a small by significant role in world history. The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible and the Three Wise Men of the New Testament are traditionally linked to Yemen. While coffee perhaps originated in Ethiopia, Yemen for centuries was the primary producer, exported through the legendary (and now flavorful) port of Mocha. For a while Yemen was doing so well that the Romans called the area “Arabia Felix,” flourishing (or happy) Arabia.

19 th Century: The Formation of Today’s Yemen

This is when the political contours of today’s Yemen really started to emerge, with distinct northern and southern regions, whose tribal, religious, and geographic divisions still complicate Yemeni politics today.

1839: As part of their Empire, the British set up a protectorate around the port city of Aden and rule southeastern Yemen.

1918: Shia imams declare a kingdom in North Yemen and gain independence from the Ottoman Empire.

1960s: A military rebellion and six-year civil war in the 1960s, in which Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed opposite sides, overthrows the kingdom and establishes the Yemen Arab Republic.

1967: The British leave southern Yemen, and the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen is created.

1970: The People’s Republic becomes the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as South Yemen, a client state of Moscow. Leaders in both north and south Yemen face periodic civil uprisings and restive tribes.

1990: The end of the Cold War a year earlier brings profound change in Yemen. Communist subsidies to south Yemen evaporate, and the two Yemens merge into one. Soon after unification, President Ali Abdullah Saleh provokes a crisis with Yemen’s Gulf neighbors and the United States by refusing to condemn Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

1994: Simmering north-south tensions once more erupte, with President Saleh sending armed forces to crush a southern independence civil war. (The Southern Transitional Council, which in June 2018 seized control in parts of the south, grew out of this southern independence tradition).

The Threat of Terrorism

2000: 17 U.S. personnel are killed in the October bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, focusing international attention on a rapidly expanding terrorist threat inside ungoverned areas in Yemen in the form of an offshoot of Al Qaida known as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

2004: As the United States and others push President Saleh to concentrate on fighting AQAP, Saleh launches a series of brutal battles, backed by Saudi Arabia, against northern Yemeni Zayidi Shia fighters known as Houthis, whom he accuses of separatism and of trying to impose their religious orthodoxy on the state. The Houthis, in turn, complain of discrimination and disenfranchisement under Saleh’s autocratic rule. (Yemen’s population is 40-45% Zayidi Shia, with Sunni Muslims making up most of the remainder. Zayidi Shi’ism is distinct from Iran’s Shi’ism.)

2008: Eighteen Yemenis are killed in a September 2008 terrorist attack against the U.S. Embassy in the capital Sana’a. Concerns grow about AQAP and the United States trains Yemeni counter-terrorism forces and uses armed drones to target suspected terrorist leaders.

2011: One such drone strike kills AQAP leader (and U.S. citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki. The policy of drone strikes draws criticism for resulting in civilian deaths. With Yemen’s civil war creating security vacuums in many parts of the country, AQAP remains a threat today and is the justification given by the United Arab Emirates and others for their troop presence in southern Yemen.

Fragmentation and Catastrophe

2011: In Yemen’s version of the Arab uprisings, protests in Sana’a initially concentrate on corruption and economic hardships. Demands for widespread government changes grow, fueled in part by casualties from the heavy-handed government response. Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkul Karman becomes the face of the protests for her role in organizing demands for respect for human rights and is later jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Concerned about instability in their backyards, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors draw on U.S. support and their own financial muscle to persuade President Saleh to resign in favor of his Vice President, Abderabbu Mansour al-Hadi, in a transitional arrangement known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.

2012: As part of the GCC initiative, Saleh receives immunity from local prosecution and Hadi runs unopposed for a two-year term as transitional president. Today Hadi, of course, remains president of Yemen’s officially recognized, but exiled, government.

2013: Backed by the Security Council and as called for in the GCC initiative, UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar facilitates a Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC), with participation from Yemen’s diverse political groups (including representatives from the restive south and the Houthi political party named Ansar Allah) and civil society.

2014: The NDC outcome is released and praised inside and outside Yemen as a model of compromise and of inclusive representation. Among other things, the NDC document extends Hadi’s term for a year to oversee conclusion of the transition and multi-party elections, gives 50-50 representation between north and south in a legislative body, and guarantees freedom of religion and a non-sectarian state.

2014: Houthi-Sunni clashes in the summer complicate implementation of the NDC outcome. Popular protests sparked by a reduction in fuel subsidies erupt against the Hadi government in September, and the Houthis seize the opportunity to move militarily – thus breaking the NDC in which they had (reluctantly) participated. Allied with former President Saleh, their former nemesis, the Houthis quickly prevail.

February 2015: Hadi and his cabinet, after briefly being held hostage by the Houthis, flee to Saudi Arabia, leaving the Houthis in practical, if not legal, control of the institutions of the state.

March 2015: The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen begins with the stated goals of reversing the Houthi military conquest of Yemen, restoring the Hadi government to Sana’a, securing Saudi Arabia’s southern border from Houthi raids and air-strikes, and preventing outside (e.g., Iranian) interference on the Arabian Peninsula.

April 2015: While not endorsing military action itself, the UN Security Council adopts Resolution 2216, endorsing the political goals of Houthi military surrender and return to UN-facilitated political talks.

Today: More than two and a half years later, Yemen’s war consists of several distinct but overlapping parts – Houthis vs. the Saudi-led coalition, Houthis against Yemeni Sunnis in places such as Ta’izz, a southern independence insurgency against both Houthi-controlled Sana’s and the Hadi government, an anti-terrorism campaign, and a Saudi-Iranian proxy war. With victory in any of these wars elusive, the losers are the Yemeni people enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Respite will come when global and regional powers implement and enforce an end to hostilities, deliver protected, uninterrupted, and large-scale humanitarian assistance, and reach a political settlement that puts the needs of the Yemeni people first and foremost.


South Yemen and North Yemen are unified as the Republic of Yemen - HISTORY

Editor's Note:

The situation in Yemen has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. And it has taken that human catastrophe for many people to become aware of the small country that hugs the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. But as Asher Orkaby explains this month, the current conflict has deep roots in how Yemen emerged as a nation, its treatment under British rule, its role during the Cold War, and now as a proxy for tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fractures within Yemen make this humanitarian crisis one of the most complex to solve.

“Yemen is so advanced that even its government works remotely!”

As the civil war in Yemen continues to inflict heavy losses on the civilian population, precipitating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the country’s youth have turned to political humor as a coping mechanism.

In this instance, the joke is not far from the truth. Yemen’s internationally recognized government is sitting comfortably in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 900 miles away from Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, while their host government continues a relentless bombing campaign and blockade targeting the 28 million Yemenis left behind.

Sana’a, Yemen in 2013 (left) and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2019 (right).

International mediation has failed to bring the warring parties closer to a resolution, as efforts led by a succession of three UN Special Envoys have produced little more than fodder for political humor. An estimated $4 billion in annual humanitarian aid have reportedly been insufficient to eliminate the cholera epidemic or dispel warnings of impending mass starvation.

The increasing amounts of humanitarian aid, calculated at more than $142 per person, have only served to exacerbate the local conflict by creating a massive wartime economy and benefiting a select group of powerful individuals at the expense of the population most in need. Foreign aid is now ranked among Yemen’s most valuable “natural” resources, providing little incentive for reconciliation, as battles for the control of aid networks are sometimes fiercer than fighting for actual territorial control.

Villagers in Hajar Aukaish, Yemen searching rubble after a bombing in 2015 (left). Aerial bombing of Sana’a in 2016 (right).

How and when did the situation in Yemen collapse to such an extent?

As some journalists have reported, the war between the deposed government of Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi and the northern Houthi tribal organization traces back to September 2014 when Houthi tribesmen first entered Sana’a.

In the months following, Hadi and his closest political allies were placed under virtual house arrest as the Houthis pressured the central government for political concessions allotting equal political power to the country’s northern regions. Hadi’s desperate escape from Sana’a, first to the southern Yemeni port of Aden, and then by ship to Saudi Arabia, set the stage for a Saudi intervention ostensibly to defend the legitimate Yemeni government in exile.

A territorial map of Yemen from 2018 with Houthi areas in green (left). Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi in 2013 (right).

A deeper look might find the roots of the civil war in 2011 when the Arab Spring protests first broke out in Yemen. These led to the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Even after a National Dialogue Conference brought together religious and social groups from across the country, the transitional government failed to produce a new constitution that would placate the most vocal opposition to the government in Sana’a.

In particular, Yemen’s northern population reacted virulently to the proposal to divide the contiguous northern region into three provinces as part of a new federalist state and the plan was a central grievance of the Houthi movement.

Yemen’s northern highlands have been united for centuries by common religious beliefs, tribal alliances, and a history of independence from colonial domination. The transitional government’s proposal to split this historically unified half of the country, while also blocking it from accessing the Red Sea, struck a nerve among a prideful tribal population.

Other analysts might venture even further back in history to 2004, when the first of six wars between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement began.

Alternatively, one could trace the origins of the current conflict to the 9 th -century arrival of Zaydi Islam in Yemen and the gradual emergence of a class of religious and political elites, the descendants of whom are currently leading the Houthi movement.

A more manageable historical origin narrative begins in September 1962, at the contentious founding of the modern Yemeni republic. Its creation upended the status quo that had dominated South Arabia for more than 1,000 years, pitting a new generation of revolutionaries against a staunchly conservative religious and tribal class.

The original conflicts that precipitated the country’s first civil war during the 1960s remain at the core of the current conflict between the Houthi movement and the Republic of Yemen. Resolving this war will require not only a temporary cessation of hostilities, but also a more complete reevaluation of the Yemeni state.

The Famous Forty and the Birth of Modern Yemen

The Arab Spring protests that broke out across the region arrived in Yemen in February 2011, as a disaffected youth population took to the streets to protest presidential nepotism, high unemployment, corruption, and public infrastructure that scarcely benefited from government oil revenue. The months of protest were highlighted by moments of violence and bloodshed. When dozens of protesters were killed in March 2011, civil disobedience was accompanied by attacks in retribution, culminating with the bombing of Saleh’s presidential mosque in June 2011.

Yemeni protesters in August 2011 (left). Protesters marching to Sana’a University in March 2011 (right).

Although Saleh was wounded in the attack and needed to travel to Saudi Arabia for medical care, it was not for this reason that both sides of the street protests took pause.

Among the unintended casualties in the assassination attempt was ‘Abd al-Aziz ‘Abd al-Ghani, one of the republic’s founders and a political leader well respected by all strands of Yemeni society, who had been praying next to Saleh at the time. The pause in protests and violence was a recognition of not only the passing of a great leader, but also the passing of an entire revolutionary generation, of which ‘Abd al-Ghani was one of the last.

For nearly 1,000 years until 1962, Yemen was dominated by Sayyid families—direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad—and ruled by an imam, or religious leader, who controlled the country’s northern highlands and western coast through a loose coalition of tribes and militias.

A drawing of Imam Yahya as he refused to be photographed.

The construction of a modern Yemeni republic began during the 1930s when Imam Yahya, the ruler of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of North Yemen, financed a study abroad program for 40 of the country’s most talented youth. Most of these students attended military colleges in Egypt and Iraq, while others pursued advanced degrees in Europe and in the United States.

Imam Yahya envisioned this group, known in the Yemeni historical record as the Famous Forty, as his administration’s future leaders in the military, politics, and industry. Nearly all the students, including ‘Abd al-Ghani, returned to Yemen to constitute the core of the country’s civil service for the subsequent seven decades.

This initial group of students was soon followed by hundreds of Yemeni youth who took advantage of local networks of support to study abroad and returned home to occupy important roles in public and private industry. They also helped develop Yemen’s nascent healthcare and service sector.

Much to the chagrin of Imam Yahya and his son Ahmad, the Famous Forty returned home with far more than a superior education. Few of them were content with the imam’s repressive rule, the lack of domestic infrastructure, or the dearth of opportunities for economic and social advancement.

Imam Ahmad in 1946 (left). Imam Muhammad al-Badr in the mid-1960s (right).

The assassination of Yahya in 1948 and a failed attempt to install a replacement imam was followed by multiple attempts on the life of Imam Ahmad until his death in September 1962. Seven days after Ahmad’s funeral, a republican movement led by the alumni of Yemen’s Famous Forty succeeded in overthrowing the last Imam, Muhammad al-Badr. These founding fathers etched their place as immortal heroes in the history of the Yemeni republic.

As the members of this initial revolutionary generation have passed on, Yemen’s once entrepreneurial and relatively well-trained civil service has not been replaced by a similar cohort of youth dedicated to the success of their country. Instead, political appointments since the 1990s have been used largely to grow a network of nepotism and crony capitalism.

Abdullah Salal in the center with the heads of the coup in 1962 (left). Salal at a military parade in 1963 (right).

Rather than return home to serve their country, educated Yemenis have become disillusioned with the lack of employment opportunities in Yemen and have increasingly elected to remain abroad. This nationwide “brain drain” has left the country with a declining system of education and administration. Without the legitimacy provided by the revolutionary generation, fissures within the republic have reached the very foundations upon which the state was founded in 1962.

The Houthi Movement

The Houthis are a prominent family in Yemen’s northern highlands formerly led by Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the family’s deceased patriarch, a well-respected religious scholar and a Sayyid.

When a republic was declared on September 26, 1962, the institution of the imamate was dissolved, precipitating eight years of a bloody civil war that led to the eventual economic and political marginalization of tribal leaders and the centralization of state control in Sana’a. The traditional hierarchy that placed Sayyid families at the pinnacle was replaced by a republican system that preached social equality and allotted political power according to a presidential patronage network rather than family of birth.

First known as Ansar Allah, or Supporters of God, the grassroots Houthi movement began as a religious revivalist program during the 1990s. Saudi proselytization of a more conservative Salafi interpretation of Islam threatened to undermine the traditional Zaydi religious sect unique to Yemen, practiced by approximately 40% of the country’s population.

Under the stewardship of Hussein al-Houthi, the Zaydi revivalists formed a political party that produced few tangible results, before transforming into a populist front outside the confines of the national Yemeni government.

Hussein’s slogan “death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam” spread like wildfire throughout the Zaydi mosques and religious schools, highlighting an association between the hated regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and growing anti-American sentiments across the Middle East.

Zaydi religious opposition to the Yemeni republic was perceived as a threat to Saleh’s regime and eventually led to a clash of arms between Houthi family supporters and forces led by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the boyhood friend of Saleh and a Salafist by faith.

In 2004, after the first of six battles, republican military forces killed Badr al-Din’s son Hussein al-Houthi, thus making him a martyr for the Zaydi religious cause and posthumously lending his family name to the movement.

Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Unification of Yemen

A young Ali Abdullah Saleh.

After his assassination by Houthi tribesmen in December 2017, gruesome images of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s corpse were broadcast widely across news outlets and social media. The images were followed by hundreds of obituaries conveying contrary opinions of this cunning politician whose 33-year presidency had come to define the modern state of Yemen.

When Saleh first inherited the presidency in 1978 following the assassination of two predecessors, few expected him to last to the end of the year. He certainly was not expected to craft one of the longest terms of office in the Middle East.

At his core, Saleh was a true Yemeni nationalist, a persona exhibited at the age of 12, when as an orphaned child he lied about his age in order to join the army. His true test of strength occurred during the 1968 Siege of Sana’a when Saleh was among the capital city’s last heroic defenders, withstanding a tribal assault and saving the republic.

This display of bravery earned Saleh multiple promotions and an early start to a political career where his penchant for inspiring oration, constructing alliances, and engaging in corrupt politics became apparent. In what he often termed “dancing on the heads of snakes,” Saleh managed to balance rival tribal, religious, and political factions and maintain his presidency within a sea of dissenters.

This dance reached its crescendo with the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, which had been divided for centuries by different linguistic dialects, religious sects, economic structures, topographies, and recent colonial histories.

While North Yemen remained a semi-autonomous religious dominion under the remote suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, South Yemen had been occupied by the British Empire since 1839. The southern Yemeni port of Aden gradually became a colonial epicenter in the region while the surrounding hinterland was organized under a unified British Protectorate.

Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, the Ottoman Grand Vizier of Yemen, in 1912 (left). Queen Elizabeth in Aden, Yemen knighting Sayyid Abubakr in 1954 (right).

After a contentious struggle for independence during the 1960s, British colonial forces withdrew, leaving radical Marxist groups to form the first and only Arab communist state by 1968. Aden became a naval base for the Soviet Union and multitudes of international terrorist organizations sought refuge in South Yemen.

Relations between the two Yemens were punctuated with episodes of cross-border violence as local differences were exacerbated by the global conflict of the Cold War.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen lost its principal sources of foreign aid, precipitating the rapid collapse of the state’s generous social benefits, education, and healthcare. Sensing an opportunity for political consolidation, Saleh arranged a hasty union between North and South, granting southern leadership an equal share of political seats despite the relatively smaller population.

The newly unified Yemen had the misfortune of being selected to represent the Arab World on the UN Security Council in 1990, on the eve of the First Gulf War. Yemen’s decision to support Iraq and object to the U.S.-led motion to condemn Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and sanction a coalition force against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait proved costly. Within 24 hours, the United States rescinded foreign aid to Yemen and Saudi Arabia expelled nearly a million Yemeni migrant workers whose families depended upon their continued remittances.

The flag of the Islah Party.

The return of a million unemployed Yemenis and the loss of one of the country’s most significant sources of revenue sent the Yemeni economy into a tailspin culminating in yet another civil war in 1994.

When Yemen held its first free elections in 1993, the Yemen Socialist Party, led by South Yemen’s leadership, performed poorly and finished third behind Islah, a new Islamist party that recruited new members from among those most severely impacted by the economic hardships that followed the First Gulf War.

When the south seceded from the union in 1994, Saleh relied upon these same Islamists, many of whom had returned home after fighting the Soviet Union as jihadists, or holy warriors, in Afghanistan. The southern secessionists were defeated after Islamist fighters sacked the port city of Aden. Southern nationalism was temporarily derailed, but was rekindled again in 2007 in the form of al-Hirak, a new political party that revived the southern flag, protested northern grievances, and called for southern autonomy.

In the last years of Saleh’s presidency, his administration in Sana’a was flanked in the south by al-Hirak, in the north by the Houthis, and in his own capital city by the public protests of the Arab Spring.

When Saleh resigned in February 2012, the metaphorical snakes exposed their poisonous fangs and began pulling down the foundations of the republic. Even Saleh’s surprising decision to ally with the Houthi family, his former enemy, did little to forestall his demise as he was killed before ever having a chance to once again become Yemen’s kingmaker.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

The origins of Saudi policy in Yemen date back decades and are the key to understanding the current crisis.

Shortly after the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932, King Ibn Saud sent an emissary to the Yemeni Imam Yahya proposing the settlement of a boundary issue. Yahya rejected the emissary with the now infamous line: “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family's 900-year rule?”

In the ensuing war, Yahya’s tribesmen were soundly defeated, and Ibn Saud captured three territories along the border: Asir, Najran, and Jizan. The 1934 Treat of Ta’if made this annexation official while also setting the stage for a perpetual Saudi-Yemeni territorial rivalry.

Securing the southern border subsequently became a Saudi priority, especially during moments in history when threats from Yemen seemed particularly alarming. During the 1960s, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser stationed 70,000 Egyptian troops in Yemen in support of the new republic, his open threats to the royal family drew Saudi Arabia into the civil war in support of the deposed Imam Muhammad al-Badr.

Yemeni nationalism, in particular, served as a potent warning sign for Saudi Arabia, who feared that a more populous and centralized Yemeni state might demand the return of the three provinces and embark on a military expedition that could threaten the monarchy. Similarly, following the 1990 unification of Yemen, Saudi Arabia was concerned that a unified Yemen could destabilize the region and was one of the only countries to support the southern secessionists during the 1994 civil war.

After securing a renewed territorial agreement in 2000, Saudi Arabia moved to restrict freedom of movement across the southern border. The construction of a new border wall and an increased number of border guards severed historic trade routes and separated families and tribes living on both sides of the border.

Houthi fighters in 2009.

As the Houthi movement began to coalesce, concern grew about the sizeable rebel group forming along the border between the two countries, convincing the Saudis of a need to insert ground forces into Yemen in 2009.

The death of dozens of Saudi soldiers in battle with Houthi tribesmen marked the first and possibly last time that Saudi troops would engage with the Houthis in the mountainous territory of Yemen’s northern highlands. The casualties served as the basis for the Saudi army’s mantra exchanged in jest: “Staying in cool places and avoiding the sun … and staying away from the Yemeni army!”

When the Houthis seized the capital city of Sana’a, the movement’s leadership used the pulpit to declare their malicious intentions against Saudi Arabia, thus precipitating yet another round of the ongoing Saudi-Yemeni rivalry that began in 1932.

Purportedly at the behest of Mansur Hadi, Yemen’s president in exile, the Saudis continue to lead a coalition of regional states against the Houthis in Operation Decisive Storm, later paradoxically renamed Operation Restoring Hope.

The Saudi bombing campaign, bands of mercenary ground forces, and a merciless naval and air blockade have precipitated what analysts refer to as one of the worst man-made humanitarian crises of modern times. Alarming statistics detailing the number of cholera victims in Yemen, coupled with shocking photos of starving children, have led Western countries to condemn the Saudi campaign and struggle to understand the ultimate goals of these operations in Yemen.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman portrays his support for the war in Yemen as acting on an official UN condemnation of the Houthi movement and as ultimately constituting a safeguard against Iranian expansion in the region.

A Fragmented Country

The ongoing war in Yemen is not a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as is sometimes asserted. Nor is it a religious war between the Sunni and Shi’i sects of Islam. Rather this is a unique moment wherein the Yemenis must decide the future of their country.

The civil war that began in 2014 between the northern population and the republic can be seen as a continuation of the country’s first civil war between a traditional, religious, and tribal society from the northern countryside and a republic led by an educated and urban elite.

The secession of hostilities in 1970 can, in retrospect, be seen as only a temporary truce that resulted in the marginalization of the defeated northern highlands. The children and grandchildren of those same defeated tribesmen who had supported the deposed Imam al-Badr, have now returned to the capital city of Sana’a demanding political retribution and remaining undeterred by a republic bereft of its revolutionary legitimacy.

A map of the conflict in North Yemen between Republicans (black) and Zaydi Royalists (red) in 1967 (left). Anti-Houthi protests in Sana’a in 2017 (right).

The republic founded in 1962 has since dissolved, leaving in its wake unresolved grievances and competing aspirations for independence within South Arabia. History has shown that neither two separate Yemeni states nor one centralized state can foster long-term stability for the region.

Yemeni canal workers in 2003.

Rather, a decentralized federalist state that provides equal degrees of autonomy and resource sharing to southern separatists, northern Houthis, and other traditionally independent regions in Yemen might form the foundations of a future Yemeni state—one that will both assuage Saudi fears of a strong Yemeni state and provide political and economic opportunity to a new generation of Yemeni leadership.

Throwing money at the problem will not immediately solve the crisis, nor will it ensure the long-term stability of South Arabia. Rather than isolate Yemen as a pariah state, the wealthy Gulf countries would benefit from incorporating 28 million Yemenis into the Gulf economy, alleviating border tensions, and empowering Yemenis to chart their own paths.

Suggested Reading

Brandt, Marieke. Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict. London: Hurst & Co. Publ. Ltd., 2017.

Caton, Steven Charles. Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Dresch, Paul. A History of Modern Yemen.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Haykel, Bernard. Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad Al-Shawkānī. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Orkaby, Asher. Beyond the Arab Cold War: The International History of the Yemen Civil War, 1962-68. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Phillips, Sarah. Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis.New York: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011.

Vom Bruck, Gabriele. Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition. 1st ed. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


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What next?

Outside of Aden, smaller separatist movements in other southern provinces do not back the STC’s vision of re-establishing the South Yemen republic through the use of force, with the STC unlikely to easily traverse the fragmentation of allegiances within the south.

“Hadramis [ from Hadramaut governorate], for example, have a strong governorate identity and would be unlikely to accept rule from Aden given the greater autonomy it has enjoyed since the outbreak of the conflict,” Topham said.

Additionally, those in al-Mahra province have opposed both the Saudi presence and STC forces moving into their region, and spoke out against the STC in August, she noted.

Another obstacle is the international community’s support for Yemen’s territorial integrity.

“All of the United Nations Security Council handling of the Yemen conflict has consistently affirmed the Hadi government’s legitimacy and Yemen’s territorial integrity as its legal basis,” Topham said.

Furthermore, the STC is “not the only group to claim the mantle of the southern independence cause”, she added, referring to other rival separatist groups with ambitions of representation.

According to Nasser, about 25 other separatist groups exist in the south.

“They are all for independence but have different visions on how to achieve that so in that sense are much more polarised,” she said. “Some reject outside intervention and advocate for a peaceful movement.”

And while the STC is the most powerful of all the separatist groups, it doesn’t have a vision for nation-building, she said.

One significant point was that separatists advocate for independence (itisqlal in Arabic) and not secession (infisal), Nasser explained. The latter was taught throughout schools in the north as carrying negative connotations akin to treachery and betrayal.

But terminology aside, “the struggle for [southern] independence has gone through so many phases it has lost its purpose”, Nasser said.


Yemen

Saana, Yemen’s capital, is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Yemen was ruled by the Ottomans in the 1500s and again from the mid-nineteenth century. The southern city of Aden came under British rule in 1839.

After becoming independent in 1918, North Yemen was ruled by feudal leaders until 1962, when army leaders seized control. In 1967, the last British troops left the south, which adopted a Communist-oriented government. North and South Yemen were unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990, but civil unrest and armed conflict between the two continued with various foreign militants intervening. The security situation worsened drastically in 2014 when northern rebels seized control of Sanaa.

Today Yemen has over 28 million citizens. (1)

GOVERNMENT

Yemen is a republic, with the incumbent president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, having been in office since 2012. Mr. Hadi briefly resigned from office in 2015, fleeing to Saudi Arabia when rebels took over the capital. He returned to power with the support of loyalists and Saudi-led troops and set up a temporary capital in the southern city Aden. The rebels have their own revolutionary government in place that they hold to be legitimate, but Mr. Hadi is still the internationally-recognized leader. (2)

ECONOMY

The ongoing civil war has put additional pressure on the Yemeni economy, which was already struggling. The impoverished country was dependent on dwindling oil revenues. Since the takeover, exports have further declined and the rebels have also appropriated government funds for their own purposes.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Nearly 80% of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance. (3) A staggering 20 million people do not have access to basic health care, and more than five million are suffering borderline famine conditions. The humanitarian crisis requires large-scale efforts from outside aid sources, and basic supplies like food, fuel, and medicine are critically needed to be delivered throughout Yemen. There are over 2 million IDPs within the country.(4) Also, human trafficking is a major issue for men, women, and children in Yemen due to the lack of security and conditions of poverty.

MEDIA

TV and radio are the main sources of media utilized in Yemen. The Internet is prone to being shut down due to rebel control over online communication.

RELIGION

Although no official statistics exist, it is thought that 65% of Yemenis are Sunni Muslim and 35% are Shia Muslims belonging to the Zaidi order. Christians, Jews, Baha’is, and Hindus together make up less than one percent of the population. Yemen’s legal system is based on both Islamic sharia law and a secular civil code. Freedom of thought is protected by the constitution, but proselytizing to Muslims is illegal, and conversion from Islam is officially a capital offence.

While Yemen’s government controlled the country, members of minority religions could worship in relative freedom. However, religious freedom has deteriorated since a rebel coalition led by Zaidi Houthis seized control of the country in 2014. Among other targets, Shia mosques and Christian churches have since been attacked by armed groups.

It is estimated there are 40,000 Christians living throughout Yemen (5).


Yemen

The Kingdom of Yemen (colloquially known as North Yemen) became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and in 1962 became the Yemen Arab Republic. The British, who had set up a protectorate area around the southern port of Aden in the 19th century, withdrew in 1967 from what became the People's Republic of Southern Yemen (colloquially known as South Yemen). Three years later, the southern government adopted a Marxist orientation and changed the country's name to the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. The massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from the south to the north contributed to two decades of hostility between the states. The two countries were formally unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. A southern secessionist movement and brief civil war in 1994 was quickly subdued. In 2000, Saudi Arabia and Yemen agreed to delineate their border.

Fighting in the northwest between the government and the Huthis, a Zaydi Shia Muslim minority, continued intermittently from 2004 to 2010, and then again from 2014-present. The southern secessionist movement was revitalized in 2007.

Public rallies in Sana'a against then President Ali Abdallah SALIH - inspired by similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt - slowly built momentum starting in late January 2011 fueled by complaints over high unemployment, poor economic conditions, and corruption. By the following month, some protests had resulted in violence, and the demonstrations had spread to other major cities. By March the opposition had hardened its demands and was unifying behind calls for SALIH's immediate ouster. In April 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in an attempt to mediate the crisis in Yemen, proposed the GCC Initiative, an agreement in which the president would step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. SALIH's refusal to sign an agreement led to further violence. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2014 in October 2011 calling for an end to the violence and completing a power transfer deal. In November 2011, SALIH signed the GCC Initiative to step down and to transfer some of his powers to Vice President Abd Rabuh Mansur HADI. Following HADI's uncontested election victory in February 2012, SALIH formally transferred all presidential powers. In accordance with the GCC Initiative, Yemen launched a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in March 2013 to discuss key constitutional, political, and social issues. HADI concluded the NDC in January 2014 and planned to begin implementing subsequent steps in the transition process, including constitutional drafting, a constitutional referendum, and national elections.

The Huthis, perceiving their grievances were not addressed in the NDC, joined forces with SALIH and expanded their influence in northwestern Yemen, which culminated in a major offensive against military units and rival tribes and enabled their forces to overrun the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. In January 2015, the Huthis surrounded the presidential palace, HADI's residence, and key government facilities, prompting HADI and the cabinet to submit their resignations. HADI fled to Aden in February 2015 and rescinded his resignation. He subsequently escaped to Oman and then moved to Saudi Arabia and asked the GCC to intervene militarily in Yemen to protect the legitimate government from the Huthis. In March, Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of Arab militaries and began airstrikes against the Huthis and Huthi-affiliated forces. Ground fighting between Huthi-aligned forces and anti-Huthi groups backed by the Saudi-led coalition continued through 2016. In 2016, the UN brokered a months-long cessation of hostilities that reduced airstrikes and fighting, and initiated peace talks in Kuwait. However, the talks ended without agreement. The Huthis and SALIH&rsquos political party announced a Supreme Political Council in August 2016 and a National Salvation Government, including a prime minister and several dozen cabinet members, in November 2016, to govern in Sanaa and further challenge the legitimacy of HADI&rsquos government. However, amid rising tensions between the Huthis and SALIH, sporadic clashes erupted in mid-2017, and escalated into open fighting that ended when Huthi forces killed SALIH in early December 2017. In 2018, anti-Huthi forces made the most battlefield progress in Yemen since early 2016, most notably in Al Hudaydah Governorate. In December 2018, the Huthis and Yemeni Government participated in the first UN-brokered peace talks since 2016, agreeing to a limited ceasefire in Al Hudaydah Governorate and the establishment of a UN Mission to monitor the agreement. In April 2019, Yemen&rsquos parliament convened in Say'un for the first time since the conflict broke out in 2014. In August 2019, violence erupted between HADI's government and the pro-secessionist Southern Transition Council (STC) in southern Yemen. In November 2019, HADI's government and the STC signed a power-sharing agreement to end the fighting between them.


South Yemen and North Yemen are unified as the Republic of Yemen - HISTORY

Yemen is in the midst of considerable civil unrest and the Government of Yemen has lost effective control of parts of the country and some major cities. A new constitution has been suggested by President Saleh and by those calling for his departure.

The Republic of Yemen was formed on 22 May 1990 upon the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen . North Yemen (The Yemen Arab Republic) – independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 – had been a more traditional Arab Islamic state since. South Yemen (The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) – independent from Britain since 1967 – had been a socialist state. There have been 3 constitutions since unification – introduced in 1991, 1994 and 2001.

The 1991 constitution stated in Article 3 that shari’a is the main source of legislation. This was amended in the 1994 constitution (and the amendment preserved in the 2001 constitution) to read “shari’a is the source of all legislation”.

Since 1999 the President has been directly elected. Ali Abdullah Saleh has been the only President since unification (initially as Chairman of the Presidency Council and post 1994 as President). The Presidential term is 7 years and the last election was in 2006.

The last Council of Representatives elections should have taken place in April 2009. They were postponed by 2 years – a period that has now expired.

The law making process has changed over time. Under the 1991 constitution, laws were made by the Council of Representatives or during parliamentary recess by the Presidential Council under Article 95. In fact most laws during the first decade after unification were made by the Presidential Council (and post 1994 by the President) using this ‘recess’ provision. Subsequent (post 2001) revision of the constitution attempted to give greater law making capacity to the Council of Representatives.


Watch the video: Yemens Disaster: Not Entirely Our Fault. Yemen 2. ELAI 19